Can this tiny piece of pelvic tech help with stress incontinence?
Femtech is constantly evolving, and pelvic floor training devices are the latest gadgets claiming to improve stress urinary incontinence. Fed up of relying on kegels and using pads, Anna Bartter investigates whether a pelvic floor trainer can produce real results in under four weeks.
When was the last time you peed yourself? As a mum of three, I’m sorry to say that for me, it’s a pretty regular occurrence. Despite periods of religiously doing kegels (I’m not very consistent with them) my pelvic floor has been pretty wrecked for the past decade, and this has had a huge impact on my workout regime.
From making sure I’m right at the back of any high-impact classes to having to rely on unsightly and uncomfortable pads to run in, I’m always excruciatingly aware of those little leaks. Plus, they can make me tense my whole body, which makes me stiff and prone to injury.
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And I know I’m not alone: it’s estimated that one in three women worldwide suffers from urinary incontinence, which adds up to millions of women. Over the last few years, the topic has been talked about more openly, but there’s no denying it’s still taboo.
So, when I was given a Elvie pelvic floor exercise trainer (and the accompanying app), I was excited to give it a try. Could this be the solution to my pelvic problems?
What is a pelvic floor trainer?
The Elvie trainer is a cute, mint-coloured device around the size of a small plum. It comes with two different-sized covers for custom sizing and is made from washable, waterproof, medical-grade silicone, so it’s super hygienic.
Of course, there are other pelvic floor training devices on the market, ranging in price from around £35 to £50. I even found some on eBay (hopefully unused), so it is worth doing some research before you buy, as they can be pricey.
The Elvie sits around the middle of the various price points out there and its main selling point is the app, where you can “visualise pelvic floor movements in real time using biofeedback”. Essentially, when you squeeze, a little animated ball rises up the screen. Squeeze harder, and the ball rises higher. You can even level up if you’re the competitive type.
“A device like the Elvie will gradually make the ‘workouts’ more challenging which will help increase pelvic floor strength over time,” explains Beth Davies, a personal trainer and pelvic health expert.
“The visual aspect of being connected to an app means you can see that your pelvic floor is contracting as well as relaxing. Given so many women perform kegels incorrectly, this can be really useful to see. It has a variety of games which focus on long and short holds as well as pelvic floor muscle control.”
How do you use a pelvic floor trainer?
Now, here’s where it all gets a little tricky. Much like a (rather large) tampon, you insert the device into your vagina, leaving the little tail outside your body so you are able to remove it easily (don’t forget to wash it with mild soap and water before and after each use). If you find insertion tricky, you can use a water-based lubricant.
I was a little worried about my coil, but I needn’t have worried; the Elvie trainer is totally safe to use with a coil or IUD. And it’s way more comfortable than I expected, once it’s inserted properly – which can be a bit tricky, as I discovered.
You also, obviously, need to find somewhere discreet to do the exercises.
The first time I used it, it took a while to connect and was quite glitchy. I’m not sure if that was due to my pathetically weak muscles or a bad connection.
It also highlighted that when I try to tense my pelvic floor, I’m pushing down rather than up, which was interesting and perhaps explains why kegels have been so ineffective for me in the past. Once I got the hang of it, though, it was good to be able to track my (somewhat limited) progress over the weeks.
In some ways, it’s easier to do the old-fashioned kegels when brushing your teeth or whenever you remember (usually when someone mentions them, right?) but as this ad-hoc method wasn’t working for me, I had nothing to lose by persevering with the Elvie.
Do pelvic trainers really work?
Well, as much as I’d love to be able to say that I’m fixed, the truth is more complex than that. When I started to realise that the trainer perhaps wasn’t the magic bullet I was hoping for, I spoke to a couple of pelvic health experts to find out what was going on down there.
It depends on the issue
“The efficacy of the trainers will depend on what the issue is with your pelvic floor,” explains Davies. “If it’s a pelvic floor strength issue and you’re able to establish a routine then a trainer can work well, but there can be many reasons why someone may leak or have symptoms. It may be down to pelvic floor muscles, which tend to hold tension, and therefore more strengthening may not yield results.”
In addition, I learned that if you have any scar tissue in the area (hello, tearing in childbirth and two episiotomies), training the muscles can be more difficult. “You might have scar mobility issues from your tear and episiotomies,” explains Davies, “or symptoms might may be down to an inability to manage pressure or due to prolapse (descent of pelvic organs). Simply having more strength in the muscles isn’t always the answer.”
You need to give it lots of time
“I think that if you are just using a device and doing nothing else then four weeks is too soon to see a difference,” explains Grace Lillywhite, owner of pelvic floor specialist pilates centre Centred Mums. “Pelvic floor physios generally say around three months of doing kegels is needed to see results.”
A holistic approach can be helpful
When dealing with a pelvic floor issue, a whole-body approach is best. “The pelvic floor needs to be looked at as part of the bigger picture,” advises Lillywhite. “It’s impacted by so many things including breathing, posture and daily movement patterns so although pelvic floor trainers can help to some extent, they miss out key factors that can mean that the strength they build isn’t very effective.”
So, it’s not just about the lift and squeeze. Lillywhite explains that there’s a lot more to pelvic floor function that it first seems.
“Although there is lots of evidence about the impact of kegels for pelvic floor health, it’s important to take a holistic view. For example, if your breathing patterns are dysfunctional and you are belly breathing or chest breathing, you may struggle to make significant changes to pelvic floor function.
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“People need to learn how to release, as well as tighten, their pelvic floor, as you cannot effectively strengthen a muscle that is locked and tight. We want our pelvic floor to be reflexive and reactive. It should respond to the movement we are doing and work hard when it needs to but relax when it doesn’t need to.”
Having said all this, the Elvie is a very pretty, practical piece of kit – the carry case doubles up as the charging station, which is very handy as well as discreet – and it is easy to use. All in all, it will encourage me to work my pelvic floor muscles more regularly, and that can only be a good thing.
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